Over the course of five years, Breaking Bad has established itself primarily as a show about transformation. As such, it was evident from the get-go that this was the type of story that, if mapped out realistically, could only last so long before it all had to come to an end. It’s strange being on the cusp of that end now – it feels like it was only yesterday when the series quietly premiered to little fanfare, only to become one of the most revered and respected television dramas of all time. Over the course of four seasons, Breaking Bad has challenged, surprised, engaged, and enthralled like no other series, and when compared to its top-tier brethren, Breaking Bad has proven itself decidedly more unhinged. It’s willing to take much bigger risks within its narrative, and in doing so, has produced substantially bigger payoffs. Two of those risks, I’d argue, are two of the greatest moments ever put to screen: Jane Margolis’s overdose and the murder of Gale Boetticher. Naturally, both of those moments are very much tied to the show’s ultimate objective of character transformation. Walter White had an active hand in both of those deaths, the former from inaction and the latter from desperation, and both actions, no matter how justified you may feel they were, furthered Walter White’s descent into darkness.
But there’s something that runs deeper than the sheer effectiveness or the brilliance of those scenes. From a structural standpoint, what makes those two moments and so many others wholly impressive when looking at Breaking Bad’s overall progression is that they were stepping stones into hell – not hell itself. In a show about transformation, once the process is complete, the journey is over. But the journey was, and still is, far from over. This narrative reality can mostly be attributed to the talent of Breaking Bad’s writing staff. Walter White, despite his choices, has managed to remain a sympathetic character – a character that has made terrible choices and has done terrible things, but in some small way, still has good within him. He wants to provide for and protect his family. He wants to protect Jesse. And he wants the recognition that so many others have stolen from him throughout the course of his life.
Much of this sympathy also stems from the character construction of Walter White. His personality traits have him regularly coming off as a frantic, panicked, often cowardly mess of an individual. And far from the traditional killer, it’s virtually impossible to identify Walter as cold-blooded; he’s labored over the choices that threatened to push his morality over the edge, and even after committing to them, there’s never a sense of catharsis – Walt never fully reconciles with, justifies, or accepts the horrible things that he’s done. Throughout the majority of “Live Free or Die,” that version of Walter White – the immoral, but ultimately human character, is still there. He’s still succeeding with the mind of a scholar as opposed to a criminal, tripping his way through an evidence room caper that he, Mike, and Jesse barely escape from. He’s still displaying that same tenderness toward his family, and he’s still, for all intents and purposes, doing all of this to provide for them. After all, let’s not forget that by the end of last season, between the hospital bills, the car wash purchase, and the IRS/Beneke payoff, Walt was financially tapped out.
But there’s something noticeably different about Walter White in the scenes that bookend this season premiere. There’s a version of Walt we’ve never seen before, one that has been alluded to since the very first episode, but until now, has remained unseen. In the closing moments of “Live Free or Die,” Walter embraces Skylar and informs her that all is forgiven with regards to Ted Beneke. But there’s a coldness in his voice that is undeniable; a look in his eyes that can only be interpreted as soulless. Fast forward to the future: it’s Walt’s 52nd birthday, and he’s eating his breakfast alone. As he prepares for the purchase of an automatic weapon, he converses with the waitress that’s tending to him. He’s disconnected, cold, and most importantly, threatening. And as we watch him in this opening scene, the most unnerving thing about his demeanor is that it is, as we’ll later discover, virtually the same as the one that’s on display in the final moments of the episode. This transformation has been a long time coming – we’ve all anticipated and feared it since the very beginning of this story. But “Live Free or Die” offers up an unsettling possibility: that transformation may already be here, unpredicted, virtually undetected, and ready to be unleashed.